In my Business of Film class at Columbia, I’ve talked for many years about how unforeseeable events can affect the success or failure of a film in the marketplace. I’ve seen and worked on many films that would be examples of this, but no film I’ve ever been involved with had such a dramatic date with fate as Tanya Wexler’s second feature, “Ball in the House.”
My first collaboration with Tanya, an alum of the Columbia MFA Film Program, was as Producer’s Rep on her first feature, “Finding North.” The film was modest in scope, but beautifully acted and directed, and packed an emotional wallop at the end. It premiered to much acclaim at SXSW, ending up with a theatrical release through Cowboy Booking. I was eager to work with Tanya again.
She came to me with a script she had found–a very funny, very dark comedy about how society does everything it can to prevent us from healing ourselves. The script was by Matthew Swan, and was apparently loosely based on personal experience. I read it, loved it, and told Tanya I would be glad to produce it. That was the start of a very prolonged process that most independent producers are familiar with–casting the film with big enough names to lure private investors. It took awhile, but we finally pulled it together and, after a relatively smooth production in the dead of the Chicago winter, we had a film that starred Jonathan Tucker, Jennifer Tilly, David Strathairn and Ethan Embry, and a film that was testing really well with recruited audiences.
We were elated when the film was selected to have its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and I began my early marketing effort to prime potential distributors. Among other things, I sent a DVD of one very funny scene to all the acquisitions executives. They were salivating to see it.
Our world premiere was slated for September 13, 2001.
Suffice to say, after 9/11, there was no appetite for a very dark dysfunctional family comedy that dealt with addiction. In fact, all the American buyers and press were only interested in somehow getting back home over the border. We tried our best to get buyers to pay attention in the months that followed, but the bloom was off the rose. There was no way to reproduce the effect of a big audience reacting in a festival setting. Watching the film in an office on a DVD would not play the same way. And there was no way to get buyers to come to screenings when the film had already premiered. After all the effort, the film was bought for a “straight to video” release, with the final insult being that they changed the title to “Relative Evil” and made it look like a sort of horror film.
Fortunately Tanya’s career has taken off. Her fourth feature is in post-production, with more on the way. In the meantime, enough time has passed that “Ball in the House” is ripe for rediscovery. And it’s showing on Saturday, September 15th, at Columbia’s Lenfest Center for the Arts. Personally, I can’t wait to see it again with a real audience. Tickets are available at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe/10320562.
If you want to read more about the my family odyssey on and after 9/11, check out my blog post on the subject here.